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TYPES AND PURPOSES OF INDICATORS

Indicators constitute a heterogeneous policy tool, with a range of purposes, functions, disciplinary backgrounds, application areas and levels, and theoretical and normative underpinnings. An often-cited definition perceives indicators as 'variables that summarize or otherwise simplify relevant information, make visible or perceptible phenomena of interest, and quantify, measure, and communicate relevant information' (Gallopin 1996, p. 108). Jackson (2011, p. 15), in defining a performance indicator as an 'unbiased estimate of true performance which cannot be measured directly', captures two essential features of indicators, namely that of 'indication', entailing the idea that an entity that is not directly measurable can nevertheless be 'assessed using a limited set of measurable parameters' (Turnhout 2009, p. 403), and that of 'signalling' - an indicator needs to be interpreted and given meaning (Jackson 2011, p. 15). According to Gudmundsson (2003, p. 4), the existence of an underlying conceptual framework distinguishes indicators from data or statistics. Such a framework determines the criteria and logic for the choice of specific indicators, anchors indicator systems in theory and ensures comparability and communicability (Gudmundsson 2003, p. 4; Pinter et al. 2005, p. 16). Godin (2003, p. 681) highlights the early warning trend-observation functions, while Jackson (2011, p. 24) underlines the imprecision inherent in indicators. Views diverge on whether indicators should necessarily be underpinned by a causal model (Godin 2003, p. 681; Cobb and Rixford 1998), or whether indeed indicators differ from evaluations in that only the latter necessarily seek to establish cause-effect relationships (Gudmundsson 2003, p. 2). Finally, Gudmundsson (2003, p. 4) evokes the objective of utilization as a defining characteristic of indicators, and distinguishes three alternative 'utilization frameworks', which classify indicators according to their function as providing information, monitoring or control. Information frameworks entail descriptive indicators, monitoring frameworks are designed to provide regular feedback through a combination of descriptive and performance indicators (for example, OECD Environmental Performance Indicators and the EU Lisbon Process competitiveness indicators), while control frameworks entail a stronger link to action through, for example, resource allocation and the associated sanctions. The question of indicator functions will be addressed in more detail later in this chapter. The next section will suggest a typology of different indicators.

 
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